Getting creative in the kitchen with children can widen their food horizons, spark creativity, teach practical life skills, and encourage healthy eating. And it is a great way to offer practical math, reading, writing, and science — all in one project! Here are some tips to help you get started and some healthy recipes to try.
Know Yourself — You want cooking to be fun and enjoyable for everyone involved. Check your own comfort level first. Be honest with yourself. Maybe you like your kitchen to be neat and orderly with vegetables cut “the right way;” maybe you enjoy cooking with precision and the kitchen is your Zen space. You may want to try cooking with a teenager — yours or someone else’s — and skip the young children for now.
Or maybe you have fun in the kitchen and can let go when doing a project with a child. There is no right or wrong, good or bad here. The problems come when you are anxious and tense while you are teaching a child a new skill — then no one has fun.
Adjust Your Attitude — It is going to get messy; breathe. Plan for it. Put down a disposable plastic tablecloth on the table for quick and easy clean up. Include cleaning up as part of the fun. Have your child wash the dishes, watching carefully for knife blades, and wipe down the counters. It is going to take time; relax and enjoy. Don’t try to cook together when everyone is tired and hungry and getting dinner on the table is the priority.
Practice “Mise en Place” (pronounced “MEEZ-on-plahs”) — Mise en place is a French culinary term meaning “put in place.” It means have all your ingredients measured, cut, peeled, sliced, grated, etc., before you start cooking. When cooking with toddlers and preschoolers this step can make a huge difference. Have some ingredients premeasured and set out before you start so that they can simply dump ingredients in the bowl. With a short attention span, children stay focused and interested if you have ingredients ready to pour and stir. For older children and more experienced younger chefs, practicing mise en place creates good habits for the future and prevents them from being halfway through a recipe before discovering they are missing a key ingredient.
Taste and Smell Along the Way — Let children make choices where they can. Smell the oregano and the thyme and decide whether the dish would taste better with one or both. Taste the nuts, seeds, and dried fruit for the oatmeal cookies before you add them to see which ones might taste good together. Try dried apples instead of raisins or use fresh apple chunks instead of dried fruit and see how that changes the cookies. By using a base recipe such as the Oatmeal Cookies and Egg Muffins below and making changes, children learn how to experiment and see what they like.
Safety First — When teaching a new skill, like cutting with a knife or cooking on a hot stove, explain the safety rules and demonstrate what you want the child to do. Notice out loud when she does something right. “You are keeping your hands on the cool countertop away from the stove. You are keeping your hands safe!”
Play “Green Eggs & Ham” — Explain that we don’t all like things the first time we try them. Some children are more sensitive to different textures, flavors, and smells. Some children are more adventurous and others prefer known foods only. Giving them options and autonomy allows them to explore and expand what they like. “Should we use pecans or walnuts or both with dried apricots?” “I wonder what this would taste like if we added dill. What do you think?”
Your child may balk when you put broccoli on her plate but may love it and want to share it with friends when you all make Sun-Cooked Broccoli. (Put frozen broccoli in a plastic snack bag and place it in the sun at the park or pool. Serve when warm.) For older children, mix the medium. Maybe steamed zucchini leaves him cold, but lasagna with zucchini noodles tastes better. He might even love it grated in savory zucchini and cheddar muffins. Pick an ingredient and cook it a different way each week.
Learn Together — With younger children, talk about the health benefits as you are cooking. “Carrots help you see better.” “Spinach, kale, and collards have calcium to grow strong bones.” “Healthy fats like olive oil help your brain work.” If you don’t know the health benefits, look them up. With older children, hook the benefits to something that interests them. “Tart cherries and beets help you recover faster after a run.” “Eating a protein and a carbohydrate within 30 minutes of weightlifting helps your muscles repair.” Talk about her health goals and then research together how nutrition can help her achieve her goals. The internet offers tons of information on nutrition. Help her identify credible sites on nutrition. Talk to a young man about being able to make at least one delicious “date meal” to impress a young woman he likes.
Let Them Loose — When children are ready, let them loose to experiment. Toddlers and preschoolers can peel hard-boiled eggs and use a butter knife to cut soft foods like bananas, strawberries, or hard-boiled eggs by themselves. If the child is doing fine, give him space to work independently. If he makes a mess or a mistake, he can enjoy cleaning it up. As your little chef becomes more proficient, let him pick a dish or a meal to make on his own for the family.
Below are some recipes to try with some suggestions how to involve your children.
Delicious and healthy cookies provide lots of ways for your children to get involved or cook all by themselves. For younger children, have the dry ingredients premeasured, then let them pour the ingredients in the bowl before carefully mixing them together. Taste the nuts, seeds, and dried fruit to decide which ones to add.
Older or more kitchen-savvy children can measure and pour the wet ingredients into the bowl and whisk them together.
2 cups King Arthur White Whole Wheat Flour
3 cups old-fashioned oats
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons cinnamon
2 cups of combined add-ins (variety of nuts, seeds, and dried fruits)
1 cup maple syrup
1 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
Heat the oven to 350 F and line a baking sheet with parchment. In a large bowl, add the first 6 ingredients and mix them together. Stir in the nuts, seeds, and dried fruit.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the maple syrup through the vanilla. It should be a nice, pale tan color. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and gently fold them together until everything is evenly wet.
Use a cookie dough scoop or two tablespoons to drop the batter onto the prepared baking sheet, leaving about 1½ inches between the cookies. Bake until golden on the bottom, about 12 to 15 minutes.
This delicious flexible dish allows you and your child to let your imaginations go wild. Invent new combinations of vegetables. Try different cheeses. Try fresh herbs and dried herbs. Fill half the muffins with one mix of vegetables and the other half with a different mix. You can even turn leftover dinner vegetables into quick breakfasts or healthy snacks for the week.